Online Vigilantism

Online Vigilantism

In the digital age, the tweet is mightier than the sword. A single word broadcast through the Internet, reaching the masses through their smart phones is able to galvanise people to action and to sway popular opinion in a very short time. It is because of this reach and potential to incite emotion that has given rise to the phenomenon known as “online vigilantism”. In a largely unregulated and unpoliced Internet where there exists an almost pure form of democracy – a level playing field where anyone has an equal opportunity to have their voice heard or to right a wrong – online vigilantism originated to seek justice for perceived transgressions or unfairness. What it sought to do was to bring the offending deeds of the perpetrator to the attention to a critical mass of people then then let the virtual crowds act as investigator, judge and executioner all in one.


Featured Image: Economist


The mode of punishment invariably always begins with harassment, where their target is first shamed online through social media in a relatively benign fashion but, the social media savvy crowd know where to hit where it hurts and the witch hunt accelerates. It eventually leads to more serious action as more of the person’s private life is made public and more online vigilantes join the fray. In extreme cases, it can lead to physical confrontations when information about the person’s identity, whereabouts, employer and family are made public, leading to provocation by complete strangers. Aside from individual action, there has also been a rise of organised vigilante groups, such as Dark Justice, where a tactic of entrapment is employed to lure criminals out into the light, such as pedophilles.


Questionable action or democracy of justice


Image: DNAIndia


The tactics of online vigilantism are not new. It gathers opinions to a level of critical mass and aims to shame or erode a person’s reputation. It occasionally calls for action to be taken against the well being of the person. It is in essence a judiciary without the process.


We had something like that in the Middle Ages and in the unenlightened times of Attilia, Atticus and Alaric the Visigoth – it was called a lynch mob. Like a lynch mob, this online variety doesn’t always dish out justice commensurate with the crime and feeds on the emotions of the crowd. All one has to do is to take a look at the many sites that allow postings from the public like STOMP or Beh Chia Lor to see that the majority of posted material involves naming and shaming, some over petty issues like not sharing seats. On these there are also disturbing cries from commenters for action like jail time, loss of employment, an expulsion from the country or even death for transgressions like making a careless comment about race, religion or social privilege.


The intentions of online vigilantism stem from mostly noble intentions and it can be seen as complementary to the services provided by the police force, it often is not as simple. As online vigilantism operates outside the law, it does not consider due process. It may actually hinder the authorities from performing their job as a spotlight is thrown onto the issue. There is also the matter of handling the wealth of information uncovered by the vigilantes who bear no consequence if it is wrong. The online courts of law, unfortunately, assume that the defendant is guilty before proven innocent and in the recent case of a couple abusing an old man at a hawker center, a lady was mistakenly identified as one half of the odious couple.


Image: AllSingaporeStuff


Even when the accusations are completely sound, the voice of the collective places an undue pressure on the authorities such as in the case of Kong Hee where time has to be taken to placate the crowd and explain due process, as it is a complex and confusing process that can be viewed as unjust to some.


The sleuthing skills of the Singaporean online community are truly impressive. Within days, the collective effort of netizens can reveal an offender’s address, real name and details of his family. However, this flouts privacy laws and can constitute harassment.


Jonathan Yuen, a partner at Rajah and Tann cautions, “The very common practice nowadays for online self-styled and self-appointed vigilantes is to do what they call ‘online CSI’. They end up posting personal details of people online, very private pictures.


“While they may argue that these were online in the first place, the way in which they have posted it – asking other members of the online community to call the number, to make prank calls, to order pizza for fun, or to turn up at their house to hurl abuse, or to identify the person’s family, children, or parents, or car licence plates – now constitute harassment.”


What are the positives?


Image:  Linkedin


In the new, intelligently written CBS pilot – Wisdom of the Crowd. A father uses the collective goodwill, ingenuity and skills of anyone so inclined to analyse, sleuth and track down his daughter’s murderer. In the end, there is a killer is caught. This is a portrayal of the optimal outcome and also highlights the potential of such a system, where everyone pools their abilities in a concerted effort to seek justice.


There long arm of the law has its limits and cannot pursue every instance of perceived injustice. When the situation is serious enough to warrant police intervention, detection of all crimes is challenging at best. This is when a vigilante community can fill the gap. It also sends out a signal to would be criminals such as sexual predators, who are usually anonymous and take pains to conceal their deviance, that they could be being watched. This inculcates a self-policing habit that is less damaging to victims than to catch the criminal after the fact. It also helps bring to light to the general public about these crimes that might otherwise go undiscovered and the pervasiveness of it.


Power without control


Image: TheDailyBeast


Online vigilantism is the equivalent of a public shaming from the middle where the perceived offender is displayed in a virtual pillory for all to see, or like women having their heads shaven and paraded semi naked through the streets after French liberation in WW2. It seems a little ironic that we use the newest technologies to play out the same old outdated custom. With some hindsight, we can also easily see how a mob can quickly take on a life of its own and quickly grow out of control, even out of petty squabbles. The online community has to mature beyond petty quarrels and learn to live and let live, instead of taking grouses public out of spite.


The potential for good has to be balanced against the propensity for harm, prompting even Prime Minister Lee Hsien to caution against this type of lynch mob mentality, in an address to university students at the Nanyang Technological University.


He said: “Yes, somebody has done something wrong, repudiate it, condemn it, but do not lower ourselves to that same level to behave in a way which really makes us all so ashamed of ourselves to become abusive, hateful mobs, especially online and anonymously.”


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